It goes without saying that I knew Jillian Johnson fairly well. The Lafayette music community, like the town that houses it, is small, close-knit and motley. She was a commanding presence as a performer and a human being, smoke-voiced as a singer and sarcastic in her swollen drawl that gave conversation with her an air of sharp gentility. She was prone to pronouncement, ably confident, audacious with a ukulele, provocative, unafraid, kind in measures of deserving and fearless in calling your bullshit. She spun yarns and made friends as easily as she sloganeered. She was a turn-of-the-century Louisiana politician reincarnated. She could have kept a chicken in every pot if she set her mind to it. A wry grin contains genius within its limits, and Jillian’s grin was the wryest.
She was a populist of mind and of spirit. She made things that people wanted, designs that were at once accessible and aesthetically urbane. Through her exhaustive list of enterprises, Red Arrow Workshop, Parish Ink, WORKagencies and her beloved band The Figs, she made Lafayette a richer, more interesting place to live, one I-10 T-shirt at a time, one song at a time, one act of beauty at a time. She adopted Lafayette, but reminded us of what was best about us: our self-effacing self-aggrandizement, our love of swamp pop and plate lunches. She sold Lafayette to Lafayettians. And she succeeded because she probably knew this place better than any born native did.
Jillian and I were pals. She was a pal to a lot of people in this town. You could argue that Jillian’s lot of providential gifts was unfair to those of us who got by with less. But she was tireless in her efforts, in the conduct of her business, in her betterment of herself and those around her, in her ambitions and refusal to believe that something wasn’t worth trying or doing. There was nothing she couldn’t make. No space she couldn’t manicure into contemporary harmony. She moved easily among circles, connecting disparate groups of artists, artisans and musicians in her capacity as a designer, a maker and a singer.
Maybe there’s something about hearing it through social media that makes it seem yet so unreal. Seeing her name tagged in Facebook status updates, bolded as though to notify her of the news, forms a gulf between me and that reality. I can’t expect to be there physically with her, yet the frankness of these transmissions keeps the truth at arm’s length. There’s no possible way that she can be dead. But she is. No possible way for the inflection point in all of this to be any closer. Yet it is.
In the coming weeks, people around here will talk a lot about freedom. In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Ivan famously declares he would “return his ticket” to free will if the price for admission was human suffering. If Jillian is the cost of our freedom, if Mayci Breaux is the cost of our freedom, if nine injured is the cost, we’d do well to return that ticket, too.
I’m trying very, very hard to not be blindingly angry, to not make a polemic of an elegy to a friend. People use the word “senseless” a lot when this stuff happens, and I guess I’m just tired of that word. We spend so much time focusing on motivation or lack thereof that it belittles the facts that remain when the smoke clears and we begin shouting at each other. A beautiful woman is dead. A beautiful soul is dead. Shots fired out of the chaos of a man’s despair struck her and killed her. She leaves behind a husband, a stepdaughter, a legion of friends and family, two poodles and a world bereft of her gifts.
Jillian Johnson, we didn't deserve you. You will not be soon forgotten.